Greetings fellow Mainframers! My name is Dontrell Harris, a Senior Information Technology Major at NC A&T State University in Greensboro, NC and successful applicant of the Master the Mainframe contest.  I first would like to thank both old and new visitors for visiting the blog, and would like to extend a special thanks to Sean McBride for inviting me to participate in blogging with such an exclusive group of individuals. It is more than an honor to be able to share my experience, ideas, and opinions with you all.

Dontrell_Harris

For those unfamiliar with “Master the Mainframe”, it is an annual contest hosted by IBM Academic Initiative System z.  It comprises of 3 separate parts, Easy, Medium, and Hard if you will, with each part consisting of challenges that gain in difficulty and complexity as you progress.  It is typically scheduled to run from early October to late December. The contest is intended to provide students, high school and college, the opportunity to work with mainframes, an opportunity that many are not able to experience. The contest is designed for participants who are both familiar with mainframe technologies and also for those who have never seen or heard about a mainframe at all. This is where my story begins.

My Story

In the Fall of 2012, I began my junior year at North Carolina A&T State University with a goal of obtaining my first internship after starting my collegiate career very shaky. I had GPA issues that I knew I could not and WOULD NOT let define my true character and knowledge level.

That semester, I enrolled into the Intro to Mainframe Operations course, a newly offered course to the program. The course was being offered for only the second time when I took it. My school is very fortunate to have a mainframe, System z9 to be exact, on campus, which was supposed to host much of the curriculum for the course. Unfortunately, the coursework did not start because of network complications until the middle of October, a couple of weeks after I started my “Quest” with the Master the Mainframe (MtM) contest.

On October 1, 2012, IBM opened the contest up to the 4700+ registrants, including myself, and I was immediately HOOKED! 

Part 1 gave the participants an initial walk-through of how to navigate through the mainframe and the ISPF panels with the use of a terminal emulator client. It was all so new to me, but I thought it was extremely COOL from the start.

Part 1 was given the completion time of 1 hour… I did it in 15 minutes. From that point, I spent countless hours working on the contest, despite how difficult some parts were. There were some nights where I would stay up to 5:00 am in the clubhouse of my apartment (I had no internet in my apartment) just to complete as many challenges as possible.

When I arrived to Part 3, most of my sleepless nights were result of me trying to overcome just one individual challenge. By the way, Part 3 of the contest is equivalent to a Real World experience that someone with an actual career would face. There was a particular challenge in Part 3 that had me stumped for over 5 days. Needless to say though, I defeated that pesky challenge. As matter of fact, after all those sleepless nights and countless hours of working on the contest, I finished the contest in its entirety in exactly One Month and a Day (November 2, 2012).

Finishing the contest helped me establish a confidence within myself and abilities that was never there before. I felt proud of my accomplishments, but did not understand the importance or significance of achievement.

Of the 4700+ participants in the contest, I was only 1 of 28 to complete the contest in the entire Nation, and the ONLY and FIRST participant in North Carolina to complete the contest as well.

Those accomplishments helped me grasp my career choices and also began to open major doors for me.  Since then, I have had the opportunity to intern with IBM in RTP, NC as part of the z/OS Communications Server team as a software/network tester and also become a recipient of a System z scholarship.  Though I was not a Top 5 winner this year in the contest, I truly feel that I am still a winner with all of the available opportunities and awards that have been presented to me. It has truly changed my life in many aspects.

Master the Mainframe Tips

Even though no Mainframe experience is necessary for the Master the Mainframe contest, some skills will be needed in order to complete the contest in its entirety.  You will have to have some programming knowledge and maybe even a few networking skills, but nothing too major.

The biggest tip that I can offer is just to have the willingness to DOPatience, and that “DON’T QUIT” attitude! There were plenty of times where I felt that I just could not go on in the contest because something became very hard, but I just kept pushing myself and working towards solving whatever problem it was that I was facing, and surely I defeated the obstacle.

Just like with any problem, there is a solution… you just have to figure it out!

Seize the Opportunity…

 MtM Contest is the perfect opportunity for students who are still searching for their “niche” or just someone who loves technology, but just unsure what direction they want to go with it.  I truly believe that it is more than worthwhile for college students to learn this technology.  The demand for students with mainframe-related knowledge has never been higher and the opportunities for challenging and fulfilling careers have not either.  The beauty of it all, in my opinion, is that no matter what technology based skill-set one may possess, it can be utilized within the mainframe environment.

For those students who love programming or building databases, guess what… There is a Career for YOU within the Mainframe environment!

I personally aspire to one day become a Technical Consultant, particularly in mainframe technologies.  I am fascinated with the endless solutions that the technology is able to provide to business clients…a lot solutions that clients will never realize that they need. I am just grateful that with Master the Mainframe, I am able to NOW have career aspiration to work towards.

(*** Please follow me at mainframemindedaggie ****)
Posted in Uncategorized.

“Walker, your treads are
the path and nothing more;
walker, there is no path,
the path is made when walking.”


Seven years ago, I had little idea of what life would hold for me or my professional future. Back then, I was self-assured 19 year-old Computer Whiz working as a Systems Administrator and taking vocational training in C programming and Oracle database administration. I thought that I knew everything about computers, and I planned to begin a degree program in Computer Engineering in anticipation of moving on to bigger and better things.


I discovered how surprising life can be when IBM offered me the chance to take a quick three-week boot camp in something completely new: the IBM System z Mainframe. At that point, I really didn’t know anything about mainframes, but like any good technology geek, I couldn’t pass up the chance to learn something new. During the first week, I intensively studied Job Control Language (JCL) and started to learn about topics like batch processing.  During the second week, I began to learn about various critical aspects of z/OS systems, including storage, operations, ISPF, SDSF, and JES2.  During the third week…

Well, I didn’t actually get a third week, as three of the trainees in the bootcamp were then pulled aside and selected to interview with IBM for employment as a Computer Operator.

Two were selected (I was one of them ).

On my first day as an IBMer, I learned that I had a choice between two open positions. One position would allow me to learn batch and the systems administration of UNIX systems, and the other would allow me to focus on administering z/OS systems among large mainframe clients, which were mostly banks.

It’s not very difficult to discover what my choice was.

Despite the fact that I had only just begun my IT education, IBM gave me a great opportunity to enter in the vast and incredible environment of the Mainframes.

Over the next months, I was definitely the newbie on the mainframe team, but I gradually learned the various components of the System z mainframe while picking up the mainframe mentality. Despite previously having minimal knowledge about mainframes, I discovered many of amazing attributes of IBM System z, including:

  • The mainframe’s traditional ISPF interface (“Intuitive and Simple Panel Facility”).
  • The orders, operations and monitors (such as SDSF) that allowed me to easily track the progress of processes and control the actions of the system.
  • The clear messages in the mainframe’s JOBLOG & SYSLOG and good documentation that helped me understand what was going on.  I actually continue to think that IBM has the best documentation of any IT vendor.


These experiences led me to realize that I really wanted to become a Mainframe Systems Programmer and resulted in where I am today.

If I had to offer advice to a young IT student thinking about mainframes, I would suggest the following:

  • Read the free IBM Redbook Intro to the New Mainframe: z/OS Basics where you can learn the core concepts of mainframes and Enterprise Computing.
  • Enroll the Master the Mainframe Contest where you can get hands-on experience working in a mainframe environment.  Although this program started in the United States, it is now expanding to Europe, India, China, Brazil, and many other countries.
  • Follow the IBM Academic Initiative, which is working hard to promote mainframe education worldwide.


There are way more opportunities available to learn the mainframe now than when I took my IBM Mainframe boot camp seven years ago, but I think that, like me, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you learn. Who knows?  Maybe this could turn into your “big break” like it did with me.  

I hope you enjoyed my insights as a young Millennial Mainframer and don’t miss my next article!  If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to comment below. You can follow me on Twitter at @Guirix and join my ongoing discussion on Cloud Computing on the Mainframe at Cloud Mainframe Computing!

About the Author 

Álvaro Guirao López.

MBA Entrepreneurship (In Progress), Innovation & Entrepreneurship Business School
B.S in Computer Engineering, King Juan Carlos University.

Álvaro entered the Mainframe world when he starting working as a System z Computer Operator at only 19 years old. Over his career, he has learned the great capacities of mainframe hardware and software while promoting up the mainframe systems programming ranks in the banking sector. Álvaro currently runs a consultancy dedicated to helping various clients throughout Spain in the areas of mainframe technologies and systems programming

One of the more unique aspects of being a Millennial Mainframer is working on teams with coworkers far older than ourselves.  While this generational gap impacts day-to-day life in a mainframe shop in meaningful and significant ways, our older coworkers, contrary to popular belief, were at one time themselves young IT professionals learning the mainframe platform.  I was reminded of this fact during IBM’s Pulse Conference when one of the speakers saw a group of Millennial Mainframers sitting together and commented that he felt “like he was back at an IT shop in the 1970s.”  In that light, it is quite useful for us to consider our elders’ experiences as young mainframers and perspective regarding the evolution of the mainframe platform.  Of course, many of the Baby Boomers grew up with the maxim “never trust anyone over 30,” meaning that we need to need to take their thoughts and advice with a healthy dose of youthful skepticism.

In 1964 (the very same year that Jack Weinberger penned the aforementioned Boomer maxim in the San Francisco Chronicle), a Italian-American college student studying Electrical Engineering in New York state began to get nagged by his mother.  While this student dreamed about moving west (out californee way), his mother wanted him to think about something more practical, like an IBM co-op program in the Hudson Valley.  After much gnashing of teeth, this student relented, which gave him the opportunity to work on the ferrite cores of the System 360 (the original predecessor to the System z mainframe).  Rather than experience the Haight or the counter-culture of the 1960s, this “magna summa cum nada” student (named Nick Donofrio) began a 44 year IBM career that brought him into “the primordial ooze” of mainframe computing.

In the following 40 minute talk to younger IBMers during the announcement of the zEnterprise, Nick Donofrio recounts his views of the past, present, and future of mainframe computing.  Despite having a length longer than the 30 second attention span of the average Millennial, this speech is worth a listen, as it is the best message I have ever heard for communicating the unique value of mainframe computing.  So fasten your seatbelts and hit play.  Heck, as a millennial, you’re a master multi-tasker anyways, so feel free to fire up DrawSomething on your favorite iOS or Android Device while devoting your ears to Nick Donofrio.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel blessed?  Did Nick inspire you?  Do you want five honorary doctorate degrees?  Do you agree with his thoughts on the mainframe?  How do you plan to build on the mainframe’s legacy?  Let’s hear you in the comments!

Posted in IBM.